I Need to See Your Eyes

We don’t know what our kids walk in the door with. We don’t and there is no way of knowing… unless…

  • we make our classrooms safe places.
  • we ask our students if they are okay.
  • we allow our students to feel successful and enjoy our time and space.
  • we teach to the eyes.

The fact is, there are many divisive and marginalising things that happen in our schools and classrooms every day, whether we realise it or not, whether we mean it or not. It is the truth. We cannot control it all, but we can control it in our rooms and in our teaching. Comprehensible Input is key to making this happen.

As teachers, we must make our rooms safe places, and I don’t mean that as a joke. So many times over my years of teaching I’ve heard stories from students asking for advice or help when a teacher allows bullying in a room, or is a bully themselves. We must be the deciding factor when it comes to the treatment of other in our room and we must make sure that the treatment is fair and inclusive to all.

The content of our lessons must be inclusive to our students. The context of our lessons must be inclusive to our students. Our classroom rules, whatever form they come in, must be inclusive to our students.

I plan to discuss some specific strategies for the day to day in a later post, but the key in my room is this: I teach to the eyes. The eyes of a student can tell us so much about what they are understanding, and going through. While teaching to the eyes, we can make quick changes to include more students as well as see just how effective the things we do are. Is a student whose head is down really just tired? Is he giving up because he can’t understand? Is he giving up because he feels he doesn’t have a place in our rooms? It is not his job to make himself feel included in the class and by the teacher. It is our job.

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7 thoughts on “I Need to See Your Eyes

  1. Thanks for this post Miriam. This is a principle I firmly believe in, but find that I don’t always practice it. As I read your article, certain students come to my mind, whom I know I need to prioritize for eye contact. Especially when I become fatigued with teaching I notice that my teaching to the eyes starts to slip, so I see it also as an indicator of my own emotional health. Good thing I’m trying to rest some and refocus during my last week of winter break.

    Also, in connection with teaching to the eyes, I have found that greeting at the door with a handshake and kind look to the eyes helps get the period off to a good start. I can’t believe that I used to neglect this opportunity, but have been a consistent door-greeter for several years now.

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    1. Two great points for me, David: that my own fatigue makes a difference in my ability to connect through the eyes, and the power of greeting at the door. I’ve done more greeting at the door this year (a year in which I am teaching nothing but Latin 1 all day–so all new students to me). I see physical differences take place in the demeanor of students when I greet them at the door–and, to be honest, it changes me, too. I also find that I can do the occasional emotional triage at the door when it is clear that a student is entering upset about something. Thanks for the observations.

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  2. This is very interesting, and something I’ll keep in mind in my future teaching! However, the focus on eye contact specifically makes me a little uncomfortable. As an autistic adult, I am uncomfortable with direct eye contact, and although I can and do make it, many autistics I know can’t make eye contact at all, or are unable to simultaneously make eye contact and listen. As a kid, I was always the one that teachers thought was bored and checked out, but I was actually listening and engaged, as the teachers learned by talking with me or through assessments. My paying attention just looked a bit different than other students’.

    That’s not to invalidate your post at all— I agree with at least 99% of it. But I also wanted to add a word of caution against privileging normative styles of communicating and listening over non-normative and atypical ones. Too heavy an insistence on students making eye contact (or related concepts, like “whole body listening”) can make the classroom seem a lot less welcoming and inclusive to non-neurotypical students (many of whom may not even have a diagnosis or know that they’re non-neurotypical— I myself wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood, and that’s pretty typical among women as well as people of color, etc.)

    (And my apologies for the anonymous comment! Normally I’d join right in the conversation under my real name, but I’ve chosen not to disclose my autism diagnosis publicly/professionally, so this particular comment will have to stay anonymous!)

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    1. I am typing in my phone, but allow me to address you concerns here as best I can.

      Firstly, thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad we have these conversations.

      I have been working with autistic students since I started teaching. Each one has been different. I don’t know about your situation, if you teach, but in my district we are given key information on students who have an IEP at the beginning of the year. I make sure to read each and carefully understand them. I reach out to those students and, if necessary, we make a plan together for how they will indicate to me their understanding. This often includes hand signs or a writing pad. I do not seek to or work to make any student uncomfortable and part of my “rules” are that we have a conversation to help if I am upstting them. This can be in writing, in person, in a meeting, etc.

      Please be assured that this post is not about privileging normative styles of communication. This is more about what teachers must do, not students. Even if a student doesn’t make eye contact, as long as I can see their eyes, I can tell some things about them.

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      1. Thanks for this— I was pretty sure that this post was talking more about what the teachers should do than what the students should do, but I’ve definitely seen CI teachers around the web talking about eye contact and active listening as a requirement on the students’ part, so I just wanted to clarify/make a note for future readers!

        I teach at a private school, so we don’t have a formal IEP process although many students do have some sort of individualized learning plan. (And I like your suggestion about hand signals/writing pads!).

        I like the comments above about greeting students individually, as well— knowing students and having one-on-one conversations with them is a great way to get to know their communication styles and figure out whether they’re listening, regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosis/IEP (since, of course, not all non-neurotypical students have these things, especially in marginalized communities. And some people who don’t have autism/ADHD/anything else still communicate in a non-typical way).

        Thanks again for your comment and for letting me ramble on in your blog comments!

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      2. On a related note, the issue of teaching to the eyes came up in a graduate course that I teach on second language acquisition in which almost 75% of the students taking my course were from China or other eastern Asian countries. They understood the value of the teacher making visual contact with every student in the room, but they also raised the issue of making eye contact in a culture where one does not do that with a teacher or social superior. We talked about ways to adapt the idea of eye contact to some sense of checking in with every student, every day to make sure that they were receiving what they needed to make progress.

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